Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Catfish (Keli) - A very versatile fish

Due to going the cheaper route, there is a lot of catfish (keli) out there that tastes just horrible.  Unfortunately, this has led to people having a poor impression of the taste of catfish.  This much maligned fish is really at the mercy of catfish producers who are bent on going the easy route by not taking care of the water and feeding the fish garbage. 
When produced properly, this fish is very tasty, definitely not smelly or having the "muddy" taste.  As with any fish, if you do not take care of its freshness once harvested, this further affects the taste and smell of the fish.  Do not blame the fish but blame it on these types of producers and the consumers who are not interested on taking care of themselves by eating quality food. So to the nay-sayers of the catfish, do not fault the fish if you have had a bad or not so good experience dining on the catfish.  I used to be a non-catfish eater but now I enjoy the catfish but of course, only from my farm :).
At the farm, I have spent about 2 years in studying and testing how to produce quality catfish.  The key components are the water quality and feed.  Flowing water is essential in ensuring that the water quality is good and fish wastes are removed regularly, and that there is sufficient oxygen as in keeping the bacteria in the water down due to wastes.  Even if aerators are used to ensure sufficient oxygen but if the water is not regularly refreshed, that the fish will be living in its wastes.  Think of it this way, if you are not willing to put your foot into the pond, why are you willing to put what is produced from that pond into your body? 
The second component is the feed,  Catfish that is fed with bacteria-laden food such as carcasses such as from goat, chicken, and pig, chicken innards, animal and human waste as well as all sorts of garbage will result in lower cost of fish feed which translates to cheaper prices but does not produce tasty fish.  After all, the age old axiom that "you are what you eat" can be applied to these catfish.  At the farm, the fish is feed with quality fish meal as well as "vegetables" such as tapioca leaves, keladi leaves, young shoots of tebrau and the inner pseudostem of the banana plants.  So, it is a matter of choice for the consumers.
When buying catfish, the first thing that you need to check is the underside of the fish.  Select catfish that has a white skin on the belly, avoid any fish that has slightly yellow color skin on its belly.  The flesh of the catfish should be firm and not "mushy" and the color on the skin of the catfish shouldn't have a greyish pallor - these are indicators of the freshness of the fish.  When the flesh is mushy, it is a good indicator that the fish is already well on its decomposition process, faster for fish that have been fed with bacteria-laden feed.
It is always best to buy live catfish or for those that prefer cleaned catfish, catfish that was cleaned after just killing it and frozen within the hour.  Of course you would need to know how to handle the catfish when live - watch out for its stingers.
Now that you have the cleaned fish, what can you do with it?  In Malay culture, most of the time it is fried to a crisp or made into curries or masak lemak bercili.  Sometimes, it is grilled but not often as this requires for the fish to be fresh or you end up with this mushy fish.
From my experience and testing in my farm kitchen, this is a very versatile fish and you can do more than this.
  1. Whole smoked catfish - the fish is marinated with herbs - either kaffir lime leaves or lemongrass and salt overnight before it is slowly smoked.  Once ready, it is stored frozen to retain its "freshness".  The smoked catfish can be eaten in many ways - cooked in savoury/spicy dishes or fried or heated and eaten with rice, sticky rice or even in sushi.
  2. Dried whole salted catfish - the fish is salted and sun-dried.  This fish can then be fried or cooked in savoury/spicy dishes.
  3. Catfish fillet - the fish is fillet resulting in nice pieces of boneless, skinless fillets which can then be cooked in many ways.  It can be breaded and baked, dipped in flour and pan-fried, dipped in batter and fried, seasoned with a variety of herbs, lemon, salt and pepper and grilled or pan-fried.  The ways of preparing the fillet is limited by your imagination.  To produce the fillets, you should select a fish that is at least 800gm so you can get good-sized fillets.
I hope more people will opt to eat quality fish in their diets and discover the versatility of the catfish.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Bananas - Pisang Rastali

This is another "old-timer" banana which is now no longer easily found at the markets.  It is most often eaten raw and has a lighter albeit sweet taste.  It is a medium sized banana and when ripe has brown/black patterns over it;s yellow skin making it appear like a batik design on the skin hence the its other name - pisang batik

This is one of the few varieties of banana that should fully ripen on the tree.  It takes a longer time to mature and ripen as opposed to other varieties as it takes over 4 months from the inflorescence to ready-to-eat fruit but is well worth the wait.  When the fruit is unripe it is green in color.  The brown/black patterns only appear when it is mature and almost ripe.  By the time the fruit is ready for harvest, all the leaves would have already dried out.  A healthy plant should produce about 10-12 sisir (bunch of bananas) weighing about 10-15kg in total.

I do not recommend eating the inflorescence (jantung) as it has a bitter taste.  When the fruit is ripe, it can be used as the main ingredient in making a banana cake.  It has just the right moisture content resulting in a deliciously moist banana cake.  Due to its higher sugar content and texture, it doesn't work well when turned into banana fritters as it will soak up a lot of oil.  It teams up well with ice creams making it a good choice for banana splits.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Being a small farmer Part 2 - Setting the basics

I am often asked to explain what type of a farm I have and I find it difficult to define it within the more prevalent terms so I created my own term: a natural integrated farm.  At the heart of it, we strive to make the most use out of nature within the farm operations 

To start with, 2 separate polypipes are used to transport water from two separate sources, clean and natural water sources.  One polypipe provides for the water for household and agriculture use and the other pipe is strictly for the fish ponds for aquaculture use.  This ensures that water flows through the ponds 24 hours a day enabling the constant removal of any aquaculture waste and providing for good oxygenation of the pond, critical elements in rearing fish.  From an aesthetic value, the pond does not produce noxious odors and the sound of the water creates a calming environment.

The land clearing was done manually and selective bull-dozing, taking care to preserve as much of the top soil as possible.

Being situated in a water catchment area where there is plenty of rainfall, it was important to have facilities to provide for water run-off and a flood prevention mechanism, hence the ponds also serve this purpose.  The pond is built on the dried stream bed hence its shape is similar to a stream with the outflow going into Sg. Lui.  This is where I will start our aquaculture project of rearing fresh water fish.  With this in mind, it was imperative that no chemical herbicides or pesticides is used at the farm to prevent this being introduced into the ponds and ultimately into the fish,  With the great water quality, it would be almost criminal to contaminate the pond and the fish.  Whilst people who consume the fish may not be aware of any minute amounts of chemical toxins, I would know and this would go against my principle: I only sell produce that I would eat.

The selection of what was to be planted at the farm was also important in order to provide a balanced environment.  The first plants planted was banana plants.  This plant consumes a lot of water so it helps to absorb the water from the rains.  At the farm, only natural banana plants are planted which means that we do not plant any genetically-modified (GM) plants or plants from culture tissues.  In Malaysia, we have an abundance of variety of banana plants and I am on a quest to have all the varieties of bananas available at the farm.  This is my personal conservation effort to preserve our heritage.  It would be a shame to lose it and for us to become a GM culture and not be aware of the richness of varieties available.  Apart from being harvested for the bananas, the inflorescence is also harvested prior to the bananas and this is a great ulam or "vegetable" which has many health benefits based on our traditional medicine practitioners.  The inner portion of the pseudostem is used as a supplementary food for the fish as well as serving as a pond water natural cleansing agent.  Sometimes, we consume the inner portion of the stem as one of the ingredients in a curry.  The remaining portions of the plant after harvesting the fruit is turned into a compost providing for a natural fertilizer.  Hence from this one type of plant, it serves multiple purposes and provides a multitude of benefits naturally.

Since I foresee that there will be times when I will be too tired to drive home, I decided that I needed to have a house built but one with is functional to farm operations, easy to keep clean, comfortable and with lots of natural light.  I do not foresee working the farm alone so I designed the house to accomodate my workers too.  I use a lot of tiles all over the place - all the floors, the kitchen counters, most of the walls and to allow for privacy yet allowing for natural light, most walls have glass tile cubes.  Skylights are also strategically for more natural lighting.  All around the house, just below the roof, a 2 ft. lattice "wall" allows for fresh air to constantly circulate into the house.  The detail work on the house is still being done as the primary focus is the farm but I hope it will be completed before end of this year - my birthday present to myself.

Of course no farm is complete without some animals - other than the fish.  I started my initial stock of kampung chicken which I obtained from Kedah and later added more from my neighbour.  These are free-range chicken so they wonder all around the farm, eating their fill.  Another reason why no chemical pesticides or herbicides are used.  From my initial stock of 4 chickens, we currently have a total of about 60 chickens which I hope to further increase in the coming months.  They also serve to keep the insects at bay as well as helping with controlling the weeds and grass.

With all the different practices utilizing nature, this gave birth to our tag line: Maximizing Nature's Bounty.  More tales to follow so watch out for the next segment.

Being a small farmer - going the uncharted route Part 1

I changed direction in my life, leaving the corporate world and entering the agricultural world.  Before making this decision, I considered many things.  I realize that I no longer wanted to be involved in board room shenanigans and wanted to remain true to my principles.  I also wanted to be able to spend more time other than in meetings till late at night and to have my weekends back.  I also didn't see myself going at that pace for long nor do I see a long-term future.  Let's face reality, as we age, we come to a point that we have to "retire" and for the younger ones to move up.  So, what will I do then.  I cannot imaging myself facing the walls or watching tv day in and day out and not having much mental and physical activity.  To me, that is a sure way to get sick fast!  I began work on a life plan - considering what I love to do and to turn it into my "golden age" plan.
I have always loved plants and animals and being outside.  Added to that, I also love being active and not sitting in one place.  I also enjoy doing things that are a challenge.  Taking all those things into consideration, I decided to go into agriculture - not run of the mill type, but something new.  Hence the birth of the concept of natural integrated farm, a farm whereby emphasis is placed on maximizing nature to provide food without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  I tend to shy away from the term organic farming as I find that this term has been over-commercialized.

The first item was to select the right piece of property which has good, natural water supply, easy vehicle access, available utilities infrastructure, freehold land grant, within my budget and not far from Kuala Lumpur.  It took me about 10 years to find a piece of land that met my requirements.  To many, at first glance, the land represented a lot of work since it resembled a jungle - there was even vines that you can swing from tree to tree like Tarzan.  Taking a walk within the land then was a challenge and you need to have a parang handy to make your way through and good hiking boots as the land contour was not clearly visible and also as protection against leeches and who knows what else.  I fell in love with it at first sight - I saw possibilities in the different vegetation there as well as presence of dried stream beds.  My mind began to fill with all kinds of ideas and the vision of what this land can be developed into.
First things first, acquisition of the property.  I was fortunate that the land grant is in good order but with the twist that the property had 2 owner names on it as a portion of the total property as described in the land grant had been sold off at one time but the grant was  not converted into 2 separate land grants.  I refuse to just add my name to the grant so one of my terms of the sale was that the grant be divided accordingly before the sale can be concluded.  I wanted a proper land grant that fully described what I will own with my name on it to avoid any property disputes in the future.

During the period whilst I waited for the land grant to be processed, I visited the property many times, studying its contour and vegetation as well as checking out the water availability.  That area has poor Syabas water supply so I had to find alternative sources.  In the worst case scenario, I would have to use the Sg. Lui water where it crossed the land, splitting the land into 2 portions.  The river wasn't indicated in the land grant and apparently the land grant has not been updated since the 70's when a major flood caused the Sg. Lui to re-route itself.  However, in getting to know the people in the area, I found that water can be piped down from a clean water source up in the hills.

The land was filled with all kinds of plants, shrubs and trees and I began my study of what they were and how they can be useful to me.  It was during this period that I found that there are many plants that can be of medicinal and also nutrition value.  Thus began my adventure in the study of the properties and use of plants as well as herbs.  What to some people may be just a mess that using a backhoe can clean it all up, I found it to be a treasure trove.

I have always loved being close to water and with Sg. Lui running through the property was great, an added bonus was to find that there appeared to be stream beds running through the property and during heavy rains, the water would run through it.  This gave birth to the idea of being able to raise fish.
As the land had been left untended for many decades, I found that through the natural process, there was good quality top soil from the natural decomposition of plants and trees.  My decision to not use a backhoe to raze the land was a good one as I then can keep the top soil ensuring good fertile soil presence for my plants and trees. This meant that land clearing would be done in a manual manner with judicious selection of what plants and trees should remain and what is cleared.  My favorite tools are parang, weed cutter and cangkul.  Through the initial land clearing, I was able to see the contour properly and to set a first-level design plan for the land.

With an understanding of the elements of the property that I wanted to retain, I started selective land clearing and construction of the fish pond.  After the intial land clearing, the first structure that was built was a storeroom cum bathroom.  I needed a place to store tools and equipment as well as the need for privacy for....you all get my meaning.  I had a well dug in this room so that there was a water supply for washing and cleaning as well as a refreshing "bath" after the workout.  Now I was ready for the serious development.........